As opposed to the larger scientific community, which uses mainly email and postings to mailing lists to communicate via the Internet, this new forum uses real-time multi-user environments like BioMOO, in which small groups of people can `meet' virtually and interact. The resulting feeling of telepresence is easier to perceive and internalise than that provided by mailing lists and newsgroups: using the latter, the interaction is mainly with an invisible public, mostly composed of `lurkers'. Its remoteness brings about more thought-out and restrained ideas. On the other hand, real-time interactions enhance spontaneity, a requisite for true brainstorming.
The new community is that of people learning together `Biocomputing', the meeting point between Biology and Computer Science. This is a young and rapidly advancing field, that requires constant updating. A crucial outcome of this is that typically there are very few experts in the field in any given university, and therefore very few local courses, if any, are available to the average biocomputing student. Furthermore, various developments, including the Human Genome Project, make biocomputing tools extremely important to an ever growing number of researchers, exacerbating the need for training and expertise.
With this background, it is only natural that `virtual' courses in Biocomputing are being developed, taught, studied, assessed, reconsidered, repeated, and generally enjoyed, not necessarily in that order.
The course material is usually delivered via the WWW, and each student can proceed at his/her own pace. Small-sized study groups of students with an instructor meet periodically, typically once or twice a week, and discuss the weekly chapter and the exercise assignments, raise ideas and solve problems. An interesting aspect of this is, that the `instructors' usually learn with and from their students. Conversely, the students learn and participate by helping other students and by performing special tasks: this is usually referred to as `consulting'. In other words, the teacher/student boundary is gradually erased, leading to groups of equal learning.
To date, the Biocomputing courses have been given for free. The organisation, the course material, the instruction, and the computer resources have been donated on a volunteer basis.
A very attractive aspect of the large biocomputing community is that researchers develop analytical tools and contribute to databases, and everything is available to the anonymous user for free. Therefore, these tools can be assessed and reviewed directly by the community. Usage of these free resources is usually acknowledged in scientific publications.
The vast majority of users do not have hardware resources to share, nor can they develop software tools which can be brought to `production' mode, to be used by anyone. Therefore, many of them will contribute gladly by participating in online activities, `consulting', discussing course material and assignment results. Using the outcome of these discussions, the course material can be improved, for the benefit of the next students.
While virtual teaching solves many of the problems described above, and allows for innovation and creativity in new ways, the current state of computer-mediated communications technology still makes direct, human-to-human teaching more natural and easier to accept for most of the students (and the instructors!). It is to be expected that, with advances in computer-mediated communications technology that will enable seamless videoconferencing, mixed courses of `virtual' and `real' students will become highly effective.
Distance learning is really fun, instructive and effective. It is an unforgettable experience! How about visiting the Globewide Network Academy to find a course that suits your interests?